Pete Dunne on the presents of winter birding

You know how it is when couples first get together. You ask all kinds of questions. What’s your favorite book, movie, color, season?

“Winter,” I told my future wife, and not to be contrary. I do love winter, and I’m not even a skier.

Winter is pure, the air intoxicating. And the light is delicious. The low sun hugging the horizon strops an edge to all it touches. And the birds? Fabulous. Only in winter do I find ponds lacquered in waterfowl. Seventeen species is about par in Cape May, and that’s not counting the scoter, Long-tailed Duck, and the odd eider sitting in Delaware Bay.

Some avid birders are dismissive of waterfowl, claiming that all wayward waterfowl are tainted by the suggestion that they may be a “possible escape.” Me? I love ducks. I regard the wink of a Green-winged Teal’s speculum a gift from the bird gods. And I consider the comical two-note toot of American Wigeon the official sound of winter in Cape May.

Every morning I’m brazen enough to rise with the sun, I am treated to a flood of American Black Ducks heading out to Delaware Bay after a night of feeding. The gunners crouched in their Barnegat Sneakbox boats can only touch the birds with their longing because Black Ducks long ago learned the upper limit of a charge of shot and fly accordingly. I’ve actually known gunners who police the spent shells around their blinds, allowing that decoying Black Ducks will flair at the sight of a plastic casing. I don’t doubt it. The Black Duck winters farther north than any other puddle duck, and this demands ingenuity as well as a hardy constitution.

A flash of iridescent green is visible on the speculum of a male Green-winged Teal while it stands on ice. The field mark, often hidden, gives the species its name. Photo by Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

Out on the marshes, Snow Geese blanket the cordgrass flats, their faces sheathed in Delaware Bay “blue mud.” In the tidal creeks, Hooded Mergansers cavort and dive. When the tide comes in, it moves flocks of Dunlin to higher ground. Speeding across the marsh, traveling in tight flocks, the birds make the air sizzle as they speed by and draw gasps from observers.

I mentioned the transforming magic of winter light, but sounds, too, seem enhanced by the winter air. Or maybe it’s just the stillness, as if the world holds its breath while winter edges toward spring. Indeed, for Great Horned Owls and Bald Eagles, mid-winter is spring. In New Jersey, these apex predators are already incubating eggs by February. I’ve seen incubating adults sheathed in snow. And while Great Horneds typically appropriate the nests of other raptors, they usually wait until the owners depart. But two years ago, I watched a Red-tailed pair construct a nest only to have it seized by a pair of owls upon completion. To maintain the peace, the Red-taileds constructed another nest on the other side of the marsh.

With courting ducks and breeding raptors, winter is not a time to sit at home and dream wistfully of spring migration.

Special treats of winter birding

Woodlands, now shorn of their cloaking leaves, offer their own special treats. Mixed species flocks move through woodlands like a hungry cloud. Listen for the lively banter of chickadees to lead you to the pack because who knows what camp followers may have teamed up with the locals? Yellow-rumped Warblers, certainly, but perhaps a kinglet or two or three or a creeper? Woodpeckers also join these feeding flocks, at least until temperatures climb above freezing, and the birds are motivated to drum. It’s one of the earliest signs of spring: woodpeckers setting up territory.

Here’s a challenge: This winter, try to distinguish the woodpeckers in your area by their drum. Downy is distinctive: rapid short bursts with a brief pause between bursts. You’ll find the species-specific drum patterns described in your Sibley guide.

And then there are the thrills of the season. Snowy Owls may magically appear on winter beaches where none had been the day before. Set up a spotting scope and savor the moment. Snowy Owls are pretty obliging. Transfixed by the gaze of these splendid birds, you may find yourself wishing spring would never come.

Every winter, I search — so far, in vain — for a Gyrfalcon. The nomadic Arctic hunters spend most of the winter navigating the edge of the winter ice pack, but the odd bird sometimes wanders farther south. Several years ago, Linda and I missed one by minutes. A birder who was walking out to Barnegat Spit as we were returning to our car watched the bird come in off the ocean and land. Oh, well, maybe this year.

So, stop reading and get out there. Winter won’t last forever. Who knows what gifts of the season await.

Winter delights: 15 birds to look for in the coldest months

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